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Book Report: Robert Elsmere

Your Humble Blogger has been on something of a Victorian Lady Novelist kick. Well, a very slow kick. I mean, there was Persuasion back in June, and Cranford last December, and Felix Holtlast August. That makes four in a year, now that I’ve read Mrs. Humphry Ward’s Robert Elsmere. Or five, if you are willing to count Elizabeth von Arnim as a Victorian novelist, although the book I actually read was written under George.

Anyway, this is one of those best-sellers that disappears from the cultural literacy altogether. I mean, I wouldn’t be surprised if a college course in the Victorian Novel, even a course in Women Writers of the Victorian Novel, skipped Mrs. Humphry Ward entirely. And, in fact, a quick Googling confirms this. None of the courses at Columbia seem to require this novel, either. And yet, absolutely number one runaway hit of the turn of the century. To the point where when the JPS commissioned Israel Zangwill to write King of the Schnorrers for them, the commission was to write a Jewish Robert Elsmere. Which was the first I had heard of it.

And, fair enough, it’s quite dull, it’s terribly long, and the characters are not terribly sympathetic. And besides, if you are reading four or five big books in a semester, Elsmere is going to be down on the list. You have to have an Austen, a Bronte, an Eliot, and maybe a Gaskell. The book is one of those late-Victorian things where the author is examining an idea, and the characters and plot serve primarily to bring about discussion of that idea. We don’t really go in for that, these days.

On the other hand, the idea seems to me to still be fairly current. The titular Mr. Elsmere is a priest (Anglican, of course) who suddenly finds the scientific arguments against the historical accuracy of the Gospel compelling, which prevents his continuing in the pulpit. It does not, however, prevent his devotion to the Divine; the real plot of the book is his development of a theology and church of rational Christianity. This is not just deism or Unitarianism; it takes the Gospels as Gospel, just not as factually accurate.

The reconciliation of scientific skepticism with Scriptural faith is still something we deal with. Well, I deal with, but I think a lot of people do. And then there’s the marriage between two people who wind up having very different religious beliefs—the couple in question aren’t very interesting characters, but the situation is. And I do like the other thread of the plot, with the talented and modern sister and the depressive academic.

Digression: Ms. Ward seems to be portraying clinical depression without the benefit of a hundred years of clinical study. Which is not to say that people didn’t suffer from it before it was diagnosed, but the ideas about what it was, what the symptoms of it were and weren’t, what went along with it, all that sort of thing. I am always a little surprised when a Victorian (or Edwardian) novelist seems to get mental illness on some diagnostic level way after their time, but then, it happens fairly often, so maybe I shouldn’t be so surprised. End Digression

So here’s a question for those of you who are Christians and are part of a congregation (or have been or plan to be again): how much would it bother you if your pastor/priest/congregational leader did not believe that the Passion events, particularly the Resurrection, actually happened? I mean, yes, believed that there was a Historical Jesus, was all Q-document and so on, and felt that the New Testament and Old Testament were vastly important cultural documents of the relationship between people and the Divine, but that the Man from Galilee was a human, son of a carpenter, and not a messiah or part of the Divine?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

how much would it bother you if your pastor/priest/congregational leader did not believe that the Passion events, particularly the Resurrection, actually happened? I mean, yes, believed that there was a Historical Jesus, was all Q-document and so on, and felt that the New Testament and Old Testament were vastly important cultural documents of the relationship between people and the Divine, but that the Man from Galilee was a human, son of a carpenter, and not a messiah or part of the Divine?

That's actually a pretty accurate summary of my own beliefs about Jesus, but I don't claim to be a Christian (though I belong, these days, to a historically Christian religion). I wouldn't describe anyone with that set of beliefs as a Christian; I'd expect an actual Christian to want another actual Christian as their spiritual leader. But heaven knows I can't speak for any actual Christians.


What a fascinating description of a book (barring the long and slow bits ;). Thanks for bringing it up! I will have to look for it! Having slogged through the philosophy of history in _War and Peace_, I may be prepped for it.

Speaking as an Episcopalian, I'm fairly certain there are priests in my denomination who are iffy on the Resurrection. I think quite a few have probably written off the virgin birth as literal truth, for sure, and I know I've heard sermons which refer to Jesus' likely marriage. The issue of Jesus' miracles will always get some lively debate; whether we can be Christians without believing in a literal resurrection will, too. However, I'm in the camp that prefers to believe in a literal resurrection, thankyewverymuch, and I would be quite uncomfortable if the woman or man of the cloth who was leading my congregation was convinced that Jesus' body was, like John Brown, still mouldering in the grave. Once you get to the point of saying Jesus was a good man and a great example of an enlightened individual, but not unique, of a divine nature and did not rise from the dead, I have to wonder why you bother naming yourself a Christian. The UUs would be much more congenial to that point of view, as would the Buddhists or Christian Scientists (unless I'm misremembering what I've heard of CS theology).


So here’s a question for those of you who are Christians and are part of a congregation (or have been or plan to be again): how much would it bother you if your pastor/priest/congregational leader did not believe that the Passion events, particularly the Resurrection, actually happened?

My worship group is an unprogrammed Friends Meeting, so there is no pastor/priest/congregational leader, which sort of avoids this kind of problem. For us, each one has to ask if one is willing to accept vocal ministry from someone else of whose religious beliefs one might know nothing certain except that the other person is interested in worshipping in the manner of Friends and probably has some degree of respect for Friends' testimonies. Myself, I think the value of deeply grounded ministry pretty readily transcends the doctrinal commitments of a person speaking out of the silence. I don't expect those speaking in Meeting to share all my beliefs, and I don't expect that what they say will mean the same thing to them that it does to me, but I do expect that their words will nevertheless speak to my condition, and that has generally been my experience. I would guess that, in general, people can accept a certain amount of doctrinal difference between themselves and those who minister to them, though the amount of difference that is tolerable surely varies greatly from person to person.

I would also guess that these issues of difference become more highly charged when the congregation's leader has a sacramental or priestly function. If a person is interceding on one's behalf with the Deity, then one probably would like a high degree of confidence in the rectitude of that intercessor's beliefs. That's one function of creeds, I suppose. Unprogrammed Friends Meetings don't employ outward sacraments, so I am speaking speculatively rather than from experience here.

Once you get to the point of saying Jesus was a good man and a great example of an enlightened individual, but not unique, of a divine nature and did not rise from the dead, I have to wonder why you bother naming yourself a Christian. The UUs would be much more congenial to that point of view, as would the Buddhists or Christian Scientists (unless I'm misremembering what I've heard of CS theology).

Having been raised a Christian Scientist, I can say that you are somewhat misremembering CS theology (or, as they would say, metaphysics). Jesus's resurrection is strongly affirmed in Christian Science teaching, as are all of the healings and other miracles. These acts are viewed in Christian Science not as signs that Jesus as the Son of God was unique, but as examples of what a person with a right understanding of the true nature of God and human beings can accomplish. They are viewed as demonstrations that show Christians following the teachings of Jesus what they should do and how they should do it. CS teaching does not deny that Jesus was the Son of God, but it does not distinguish him as different in kind of from all other human beings as a result of this fact. The difference is rather one of degree: Jesus understood more perfectly the truth of being than any other person, so he manifested his divine sonship more than any other person, though we all are God's children. Christian Science, therefore, plays down the "Christ died for our sins" aspect of standard Christian dogma, positing rather that Christ shows us the way that we should follow. He redeems through his teaching and example, not through a unique intervention in a salvific economy or through a personal intervention in the life of each "saved" person. For these reasons, Christian Science is often considered from an orthodox theological perspective, I think, as non-Trinitarian in its theology, and that is probably a fair interpretation. But Christian Science certainly accepts all of Jesus's actions as described in the Gospels, up to and including the resurrection. It is not an example of a "cultural Christianity" theology.


Re: Chris--oh right right right. I misremembered CS metaphysics as being that Jesus was an example and a role model (not the Son of God in any unique sense) and I forgot they still affirm all the miracles. My bad!! I was hoping you'd chime in... :)


In the thinky, non-denominational, Protestant church that I was raised in, what you describe at the end here would be a heresy worse than unbelief.


Dan P -- just to clarify: your comment refers to my comment, not to our Gracious Host's post, yes?


It occurs to me that I should break down two things that are separate, at least in some sense, although there are certainly areas in which they affect each other. Anyway, there is (a) the belief in miracles, and (2) the view of the ontological status of Jesus. For the former, the spectrum would run from a belief that Scripture is primarily metaphorical or poetic (or that the writers were superstitious or credulous) to a belief that complete literal inerrancy. Except it isn't a spectrum, really, it's a morass—one could easily believe, f'r'ex, that the Old Testament is a tissue of myth and poem, whilst believing that Jesus raised the dead, converted water to wine, multiplied the loaves and fishes, and was Resurrected. Or you could believe in the Resurrection as historical fact, whilst believing that the rest of it is not so much accurate. Or you could think that the Noah's Ark never happened, but that the Ten Plagues did, that the healing of demon-ridden people is a metaphor for spiritual healing, but that the Pentecost was a miracle. Any of that.

On the other point, there is presumably everything from believing that Jesus had no human nature at all and was purely a Divine visitation (heretical and unpopular now, but once quite convincing) to believing in the Dual Nature and the Three in One, to believing in Jesus as a Divinely Inspired Prophet, or a Perfectly Developed Ethical Teacher, or an Ordained Messiah. There are several interpretations of Son of Gd and Son of Man that come into play. Or you could be Bishop Spong.

So the question ought to be in two parts, or perhaps three: what if your pastor/priest/leader did not believe in the events described, but did believe in Jesus as the Christ, having unique salvific power; what if that person believed in neither the events nor the uniqueness, but still felt that the story had unique salvific power? And then, the Christian Science kind of thing (thanks Christopher!) combining belief in the events of the story, but not in the unique salvific power of either the Gospels or the Christ? I begin to suspect that the last is fairly common amongst New Age systems, but I know even less about those than about Christian congregations.

Thanks,
-V.


Oh, whoops. Darn pronoun trouble always get me down. Sorry, Chris, the "you" in that was meant to be Our Gracious Host, or more specifically, the hypothetical position he describes at the end of this post.

And now he's gone and confused the matter in his last comment here. I'm pretty sure that all three of those last options got the stink-eye (stink-tongue?) from the pulpit, from the two successive pastors-in-good-standing and from the Australian Presbyterian Orator who was interim pastor after the second pastor-in-good-standing lost his good standing. There was some slight wiggle on events -- after all, there *are* two different creations stories -- but the fundamental historicity was not up for debate.

Not to say that this is what I believe now. Just, you know, anecdote.


As the question becomes more complex, it becomes easy to see why inquisitors had good job security in the Reformation era . . .


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